What is rhythm? Most people have a basic understanding of what rhythm is. Even if they are not aware of it, they react and respond to rhythm just like anybody else. Some people know consciously what rhythm is; they can replicate rhythms perfectly, differentiate between one rhythm and another, but not know what the fundamental theory behind rhythm actually is. To be able to strum effectively on the guitar, rhythm Let’s take some time to look at rhythm from a very basic viewpoint:
The Fundamentals – Beats
Firstly, rhythm is derived from a beat. A beat is simply a pulse that reoccurs over and over again at a consistent speed. It doesn’t slow down and it doesn’t speed up (actually, in some music, the beat does speed up or slow down but for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume it doesn’t) and the speed of that consistent beat is known as “beats per minute” or “bpm”. A speed of 70bpm means that there are 70 beats per minute, which is slower than a speed of 89bpm. The bpm marking is what’s known as the “tempo” of the music.
This is what a constant beat at 80bpm sounds like. The beat is being played on a cowbell.
That is essentially all that a beat is. A boring, repetitive pulse. Rhythm, is about what you do with that beat.
This is what a very basic rhythm sounds like. I’m going to play one note over and over again on every beat. A note that goes for 1 beat in duration is called a quarter note. For the sake of simplicity, I am not going to play a chord, just one note.
That was a very easy and straight forward rhythm. In fact, because a quarter note goes for 1 beat, I wasn’t playing anything other than the pulse itself.
Now, to demonstrate that I can play different rhythms over the beat, I will play half notes. Half notes are notes that go for 2 beats each.
Again, that is pretty simple. So lets mix it up a little bit by playing a half note, followed by 2 quarter notes. It will sound like this:
It should be pretty obvious by now that every example I am giving is inside of a 4 beat pattern. 90% of music is in 4/4, which means the music is divided into bars of 4 beats. That’s why you will often hear people counting “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2…” etc. The beat (or pulse) provides the backbone of the music and the measure (4/4) provides the sense of feel and repetition. This is pretty basic stuff and many of you will know this already, but it is good to be thorough! In every example, I am playing the same bar 4 times over.
Let’s get a bit trickier with the rhythm now. Rhythm really comes to life when we subdivide the beat. That means for example, playing two notes (evenly spaced) inside each beat, or 3 notes, or 4 notes. When we divide a beat by 2, we are playing 8th notes, which sounds like this:
If we divide the beat by 4, we are playing 16th notes, which looks like this:
It will sound like the speed has gotten faster. In actual fact, the tempo (speed of the beat) is exactly the same, but we are playing a busier rhythm which makes it sound faster. This is the beauty of rhythm. The beat stays the same, but we manipulate what we do over the top to create interest whilst still staying inside the “groove” of the original beat.
A Few Examples
Of course, the above examples are pretty repetitive and boring. Let’s mix up a few of those rhythms to create more interesting ones. Here are a few examples:
Counting is a very effective way to approach rhythm both from a practical point of view and a theoretical point of view. When we count, we are effectively laying down a framework from which we can play different rhythms.
Above is the most basic form of counting. It is the ‘infinitive’ rhythm of 1, 2, 3, 4. When we count out loud, we speak each number sequentially in time with the beat. Even if when we play different rhythms over the top of the counting, the 1, 2, 3, 4 count does not change.
Let’s go back and have a look at the examples and see how counting can be used.
In this very basic rhythm, we are playing quarter notes on every beat of the bar, therefor we are effectively playing a note on every ‘count’ of the bar. That is why each number is underlined, because there is a note on every count. I am underlining the beats where a note is played.
Let’s look at the next rhythm we did.
In this rhythm, we are playing 2 notes that go for 2 beats each, which means the first note comes in on the ‘1’, then the next note comes in on the ‘2’. Keep in mind that even though we are playing notes that go for 2 beats, we still count to 4. This doesn’t change (well, let’s assume it doesn’t, for now). All that changes is the rhythm that we play over the counting.
Here, we have a half note (2 beats) followed by 2 quarter notes (1 beat each). Therefor, the first note starts on the ‘1’, and then the next 2 notes come in on the ‘3’ and ‘4’ respectively. Again, keep in mind that the counting stays constant. What changes is the rhythm.
Subdivision and Counting:
Of course, things get a little bit more complicated when we start subdividing the rhythm. Remember in our earlier example that playing 8th notes requires subdividing each beat into 2 and playing on each of those subdivisions.
With this example, we could keep counting 1, 2, 3, 4… and play 1 note on every count, as well as 1 note in between every count. We would then be playing 8th notes. However, there is a more accurate way of using counting to achieve constant 8th notes. This is done by saying the word “and” in between every count. What this literally does is subdivide the beat into 2, so that there is a perfect platform for playing 8th notes. This would look like this when written out using lines to highlight the rhythm.
It’s important to keep in mind that the 1, 2, 3 and 4 have essentially not changed, there is simply something in between each number now… the word “and”.
Of course, if we subdivide the beat even further into 16th notes, we need some more words to use. When counting 16th notes, we can say “one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a, three-e…” etc.
A constant 16th note rhythm looks like this in notation (from our earlier example)
When we count, it should look like this:
The ‘e’s are usually pronounced literally like saying the letter e. The pluses are pronounced like “and”. The ‘a’s pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘gorilla’.
Let’s have a look at the last two examples that we originally used and see how they look from a counting perspective. I should make a point about these rhythms. As they switch between subdivisions, you might be confused as to how they should be counted. Remember, even though you are counting does not mean you have to play something on every count. The counting essentially runs in the background and provides the framework from which all rhythms are derived. What generally happens though, is that you find the smallest subdivision of the bar (or perhaps song) and use that as your counting framework. This will make sense when written out.
Rhythm example 1:
Of course, I could have legitimately counted it out as demonstrated below and played the exact same rhythm, but the benefit of keeping the syllables consistent is that it provides stability, which is very important with rhythm. Being able to execute the approach bellow takes a bit of experience and rhythmic skill.
Rhythm example 2:
Hopefully by now you have a good understanding of the basics of rhythm and can see and hear how simple manipulations of rhythm can affect the feel of the music. Keep in mind that this is a very basic introduction to rhythm. In reality, the topic of rhythm can and should be explored in great depth with the aid of many musical examples. There are also other subdivisions which we have not looked at and a range of notation devices that we haven’t looked at. That’s ok. The aim of this lesson is to introduce the fundamentals for the purpose of strumming on guitar. I have tried to present the information using a very metric, almost mathematical approach, because this translates nicely into strumming on the guitar. Obviously, we haven’t even touched on strumming itself yet, but that will be in the next post and to understand that lesson, you must understand this one.
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